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January 25th, 2009

“Leading by Faith” (Luke 7:1-10), January 25, 2009

What is leadership?  Leadership is influence.  Leaders influence the minds of others so that they can make things happen.  Followers accept what is or do what they’re told.  (And we all need to be followers from time to time.)  Leaders understand the past, they live in the present, and they anticipate the future.  Leaders start things, they change history, they create opportunity, they make a difference.  Leaders think about what’s possible if we stop thinking about our misery or the way we’ve always done it before.

What is leadership?

Perhaps more than at any other month, we think about leadership in January.  Our nation has a new President.  Our state has a new governor.  Later in this service, we at Corinth will set apart a new set of leaders for formal responsibilities in the church.

Corinth is blessed with many members who, whether or not they are currently in a formal position of church leadership, are leaders in business and in our community.  Tomorrow at lunch, we will have our first “Corinth Leaders Forum” in the Fellowship Hall.  John Moretz, CEO of GoldToeMoretz and a Corinth member, will give us a frank assessment of these challenging economic times.  We will put our heads together and ask, “OK, what can we as followers of Jesus Christ do about that?”

What is leadership?  Leadership is influence.  Leaders influence the minds of others so that they can make things happen.  Followers accept what is or do what they’re told.  (And we all need to be followers from time to time.)  Leaders understand the past, they live in the present, and they anticipate the future.  Leaders start things, they change history, they create opportunity, they make a difference.  Leaders think about what’s possible if we stop thinking about our misery or the way we’ve always done it before.

Tough times produce strong leaders.  That is what our forum will be about on Monday.  We can learn a lot about leadership from a first century centurion’s encounter with Jesus in Luke 7.  More specifically, we can learn a lot about the faith of a leader.

Capernaum then and now

The story is set in Capernaum, a city on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Modern Capernaum is a set of ruins in an area of Israel known as the West Bank.  Ancient Capernaum was an important crossroads for Roman traffic, and also for tax collection.

Capernaum was Jesus’ headquarters during his public ministry, probably because it was the home of the first disciples Jesus called, including the brothers Andrew and Simon Peter.  They were fishermen, and archaeological digs show that the average first century home in Capernaum was a small, humble structure made of rocks and mud.  It had an open door leading into a courtyard shared by several families.

We meet in Luke 2 an unnamed centurion.  He was probably part of a garrison assigned under the command of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great.  The first Herod suffered from depression and paranoia, but he loved buildings.  He restored the Jerusalem temple, built his own magnificent palace, and erected multiple cities.

Herod Antipas was not a king, but a tetrarch, meaning that he ruled one fourth of his father’s kingdom – Galilee and Perea.  He was in charge during most of Jesus’ life, including his public ministry.  He had John the Baptist decapitated and participated in the trial of Jesus at the request of Pontius Pilate.  But he also learned from his father that the best way to get along with the Jews was to help build their infrastructure.

It was apparently under the influence and approval of Herod Antipas that the Roman centurion in Luke 7 had built a synagogue for the people of Capernaum.  A centurion was a leader in his own right.  He probably joined the Roman army at about age 16, but centurions were not promoted to their charge over 100 soldiers until age 30.  He had likely fought courageously in many battles, and was a survivor.  Centurions suffered disproportionate casualties, because they were easily identified by their clothing and armour, and fought from the front of their troop.  They were leaders who modeled courage and skill.

But there were apparently no military battles being fought during the time of Jesus in Galilee.  No commander likes to lead a group of bored soldiers, and there’s only so much training to be done.  So whether at his own initiative or that Herod Antipas, this centurion put his men to work building a synagogue for Capernaum Jews.  A synagogue was a place of worship, prayer, teaching, and gathering – a religious community center not unlike our church buildings.

This is a picture of the ruins of the Capernaum synagogue, which Holy Land visitors can still see today.  In the background is a Greek Orthodox church.  This particular synagogue was probably built in the fourth century, but it has a first century foundation under it.  The footprint is almost identical.

A first century synagogue probably looked something like this.  So in a town of humble one room family homes with common courtyards, having this Roman centurion build a synagogue might be something like building Corinth in the middle of the projects.  Needless to say, the Jews were grateful.

In Luke 7, the centurion calls in a favor.  Jesus, whose reputation for teaching and healing has grown considerably, is coming back to Capernaum.  This Gentile asks the Jewish elders to send for Jesus on his behalf.  He has a much-loved and valued slave who is sick and about to die.  He wants Jesus to heal the slave.

Great faith

By the time Luke’s brief story ends, Jesus has commended this centurion for having “great faith” – the kind of faith that exceeds any faith he has seen among the Jews.  I have been pondering all week what Jesus means by that.  What does “great faith” look like, especially in a leader?

In the story of this centurion, I find five characteristics of “great faith.”

First, compassion.  Centurions were known for being tough, cruel, and focused.  They were “bottom line” people – but their bottom line was not profit, it was order and discipline.  Centurions themselves were subject to the death penalty on a whim of their superiors, and they had authority also to kill their soldiers.  As for slaves, they were simply property  When a slave could became injured, old, or ill, he was euthanized like an animal or thrown out like trash.

This centurion had a slave who was near death.  But his spirit was different than that of hardened, self-serving leaders – Jewish and Roman.  He cared about people.

Leaders sometimes have to make tough decisions.  But leaders who protect themselves from empathy for human need hardly show great faith.  This centurion models great faith that shows compassion.

Second, inadequacy. That may seem like a strange characteristic for leadership.  But great leaders know what they can do well, and they also know when a situation is beyond their skill and expertise.

Leaders who never grow out of the “I can do it myself” motto of toddlerhood ultimately fail.  This centurion knew that with all his years of experience, and his position of influence, there were some things he needed help with.  The vulnerability to admit inadequacy reveals great faith in a leader.

Third, connections.   Jews hated the Roman occupiers, and Romans were condescending to Jews.  There were in Capernaum both Jewish religious elders and Roman civil authorities representing the occupying army.  The raw power was held by the Romans, not the Jews.  They were the ones with the weapons and, if necessary, the backup forces to have their way.

When you use you power and influence for good instead of control, faith is affecting your leadership style.  When you could consider no one’s opinions or needs but your own, but instead you ask, “How can I listen to and respond to the needs of others,” that is great faith.  But when you build good will by valuing people for who they are and finding ways to cooperate, even when you have the power to do otherwise, you demonstrate faith.

The Jewish elders had such respect for this centurion that they “pleaded earnestly” to Jesus in verses 4-5, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  It was about more than just a building.  This centurion earned respect by making and using connections.  Great faith.

Fourth, humility.  Jesus is actually on the way to the centurion’s house in verse 6 when apparently the centurion remembers that it would be taboo for Jesus as a Jewish rabbi to come into the home of a Gentile.  So he sends word and says, “I don’t deserve you to come here.  I don’t deserve even a conversation with you.”  How many leaders do you know anywhere in any setting who have taught themselves to say, “I don’t deserve this”?  That’s not our way.  We are conditioned to know what we deserve and insist on it.  The higher up the ladder, the more we can and do make demands.

But faith changes that.  Faith sees God as in charge – not me or any other human.  So great faith conditions us to say, “Anything God – or someone else – does for me is by grace.”

Finally, Jesus.  This is the point of the passage.  A Roman centurion (a Gentile) moves outside the superstition of his background and beyond the skepticism of the Jews to say something like this:  “Leadership is influence.  It’s getting things done.  It’s having people listen to you and do what you tell them.  And no human being comes anywhere close to Jesus in leadership.  I have enough confidence in him to know that he doesn’t have to be here, doesn’t have to enter my house, doesn’t have to touch my slave, in order to change everything.  He knows everything, can do anything, and his power is not limited to one location.”  Jesus was amazed, and the slave was made well.

I want the kind of great faith that amazes Jesus.  I want to take the insurmountable problems of today, especially the financial obstacles that are all around us, and I want to show great faith.  That includes compassion, inadequacy, connections, and humility.  Most of all it includes looking to Jesus and trusting him to do what needs to be done.  I want great faith, don’t you?  That’s leadership.  Amen.

(© 2009 by Robert M. Thompson.  Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures quoted are from The Holy Bible,
New International Version, Copyright 1978 by New York International Bible Society.)

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